If more Georgians knew how easily police officers can legally and permanently seize their property—regardless of guilt or innocence—there’d be a public outcry.
Because of a government tactic called civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement officers can do just that, and it often amounts to little more than state-sanctioned theft.
Beginning in the 1980s, asset forfeiture gained prominence in the U.S. in an effort to “break the financial backbone of organized criminal syndicates and drug cartels,” according to the U.S. Justice Department. The process permits Georgia police to seize people’s property simply on the suspicion that it may have been involved in a crime, and law enforcement can do so without arresting anyone.
If owners want their belongings back, in many cases, then they have a narrow window in which they must prove that their property wasn’t involved in illicit activity—flipping the presumption of innocence on its head. Failure to demonstrate this in court can lead to property being permanently forfeited to the government. The windfall then benefits police departments—creating a moral hazard by incentivizing the pursuance of more forfeitures.
A recent report by the Georgia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights highlighted some inherent flaws with the Peach State’s asset-forfeiture model and the need for reform. “While Georgia data are limited,” the report reads, “comparable data from other states show that forfeitures often happen in very low amounts and are deployed disproportionately against poor people and people of color.”
In South Carolina, “Seven out of 10 people who have property taken are black, and 65 percent of all money police seize is from black males,” reads a Greenville News article, but it’s not just South Carolina. Nationally, asset forfeiture is “a problem that disproportionately affects minorities and low-income communities,” wrote former Washington Post columnist Radley Balko. While this data isn’t specific to Georgia, it’s plausible that similar problems exist here, but one thing is certain: Georgia police have seized an inordinate amount of property.
“Between 2015 and 2018, Georgia law enforcement agencies forfeited more than $51 million under state law. Between 2000 and 2019, they generated an additional $388 million from federal equitable sharing, for a total of at least $439 million in forfeiture revenue,” the Institute for Justice found.
Many of these individuals were hardly suspected drug kingpins, considering that roughly half of Georgia’s currency forfeitures amounted to around $540 or less. Given that it can cost more than $540 to hire an attorney to fight an asset forfeiture case, many likely just feel it is pointless to try to recover their belongings.
Even more concerning, nationally, “in a majority of civil forfeiture cases, there are no arrests or criminal charges connected to the case,” reads the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, suggesting that myriad seizures stemmed from questionable circumstances. There are plenty of examples of this too.
Back in 2012, police pulled over a grandmother, Alda Gentile, in Camden County, Georgia, allegedly for speeding. She was returning from Florida where she had been condo shopping and had $11,500 in cash in her vehicle. An officer discovered the money, asked her if she was a drug dealer, and—despite not arresting Gentile—confiscated the cash. She later recouped it, but not without a fight. Many others were not so lucky and ultimately forfeited their property without the same due process that many of us expect.
While the U.S. Justice Department claims that asset forfeiture is partially intended “to recover property that may be used to compensate victims,” states don’t often spend much on crime survivors. “From 2015 to 2018, Georgia law enforcement spent $37 million from forfeiture funds—two-thirds on equipment and capital expenditures,” writes the Institute for Justice. Only a paltry 2 percent went to victims’ compensation and services.
One of Georgia’s more egregious forfeiture expenditures came from Gwinnett County a few years ago when then-Sheriff Butch Conway used federal asset forfeiture funds to purchase a 707 horsepower Dodge Charger Hellcat for a whopping $70,000. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that he had been using it to drive to and from work and claimed it would make the roads safer because he would use it to “educate drivers about the dangers of distracted driving and illegal street racing.” He eventually agreed to return the federal asset forfeiture funds.
Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture model is clearly fraught with issues. It creates an incentive for departments to pursue asset seizures, disproportionately impacts people of color and the poor, and it has allowed the seizure of law-abiding citizens’ property. Certainly, Georgia can do better than this.
The simple solution is for the state to require law-enforcement agencies to gain an underlying criminal conviction before forfeiting anyone’s property. That’s not too much to ask.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.